In August 1999, when police saw Rodney Gant pull into the driveway of his Tucson home, they arrested him for driving with a suspended license. After handcuffing Gant and locking him in a cruiser, Officer Todd Griffith searched the car, finding a bag of cocaine in the pocket of a jacket on the backseat. Asked at an evidentiary hearing why he searched the vehicle, Griffith replied, "Because the law says we can do it."
Not anymore. In April the U.S. Supreme Court said police may no longer routinely search the vehicles of recently arrested people, a practice that was considered constitutional for nearly three decades. The ruling in Arizona v. Gant was a rare departure from a long line of cases in which the Court has whittled away at the Fourth Amendment's prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures.
The Court has said warrants are not required for "searches incident to arrest" because they may be necessary to stop arrestees from grabbing weapons or concealing evidence of their crimes. Neither concern is plausible when an arrestee, like Gant, has been handcuffed and locked up before the search takes place. Yet that is by far the most common scenario when police search the vehicles of people they've arrested.
Recognizing that reality, the Court ruled in April that police may "search a vehicle incident to a recent occupant's arrest only when the arrestee is unsecured and within reaching distance of the passenger compartment at the time of the search." It added that a search also can be justified if police are looking for evidence of the crime that led to the arrest—a rationale that did not apply to Gant and does not apply to the millions of other Americans who are arrested for traffic violations each year.
"A rule that gives police the power to conduct such a search whenever an individual is caught committing a traffic offense…creates a serious and recurring threat to the privacy of countless individuals," Justice John Paul Stevens wrote for the majority, noting the danger of "giving police officers unbridled discretion
to rummage at will among a person's private effects."